How One Mother Is Reframing Her Relationship To “Work-Life Balance”
My two-year-old daughter sits captivated, clutching a piece of toast in her tiny hand as I relay the story of Cinderella yet again. She doesn’t know that I’ve taken some creative liberties with the storyline (in my version, the Prince is drawn to her bravery, kindness, and intelligence while Cinderella agrees to “get to know him better” instead of instantly marrying).
When I reach the part of the story where Cinderella is crying because she’s been doing chores all day and is unable to attend the ball, I pause. Something about the evil stepmother’s method of not directly saying no yet managing to keep Cinderella at home by loading her with excessive responsibilities feels culturally familiar to me as a young mother.
“If you finish the housework you can go to the ball.”
While a fairytale ball is just about the opposite environment from a modern office, there are parallels between the stepmother’s method of gatekeeping and what countless mothers face as they attempt to balance career and caretaking.
“While women may no longer be explicitly banned from most career opportunities, indistinct yet powerful barriers persist.”
While women may no longer be explicitly banned from most career opportunities, indistinct yet powerful barriers persist. One of those is the expectation of executing the full-time job of running a home, caring for children, and the thousands of details that fall under those umbrellas. The subconscious assumption that women be the primary managers of all domestic responsibilities is so strenuous that many women opt to exit the paid labor market altogether while they have young children, even if that’s not what they ever envisioned for themselves. One recent study reveals that 43 percent of highly skilled women leave the workforce after becoming mothers.
It’s not that mothers are overtly prevented from pursuing careers, but they can seemingly only do so without judgment if they’re simultaneously available 24/7 to care for their family. Delegating any portion of domestic work is easier said than done when implied—or overt—judgments come from those who equate that choice to a woman shirking what they see as her primary purpose. This creates a situation as impossible as the stepmother’s condition for Cinderella to leave the house.
“If you finish the housework you can go to the
I tuck my daughter in for her nap and continue to ruminate on the metaphor. Though only a couple of years into parenting, I feel the fatigue of this tension. Since becoming a mom, I’ve experienced a year of working full-time, over a year of part-time freelance work, and several months of focusing solely on mothering when our daughter had a significant surgery. It became clearly consistent during each of these seasons that—regardless of what the career balance between partners may be—there is always a “default parent” who shoulders the primary responsibility for childcare and household duties.
Even the most ideologically egalitarian partnerships typically result in mothers taking on the majority of domestic work; nearly 70 percent of women report that they are responsible for both housework and childcare. I count myself lucky to have a partner who genuinely desires to share the load with me—and even we struggle to find the balance. The elusiveness of creating a truly practical “equal split” has baffled us in numerous late-night conversations.
“For many families, there simply isn’t a choice. “
For many families, there simply isn’t a choice. Finances and childcare support systems (or the lack thereof) may clearly dictate whether or not a parent—typically the mother—stays home. I recognize that it’s a privileged position to have options. It’s a privilege to have the ability to spend endless hours with this little person who I adore. It’s a privilege to have the ability to engage in other work that brings me joy, but the choice between the two feels fraught when powerful societal forces pull from either side.
While working for a paycheck on top of parenting can be exhausting, I often feel it’s the best way for me to model for my daughter that she doesn’t have to fit into one restricted role that so many generations of women have been confined to. The opportunity for female financial independence may be the salient motivator, but it’s certainly not the only one. Beyond finances, having a meaningful career can be a significant aspect of identity. The right workplace can be the gateway to community in an increasingly isolated society. Many jobs can be creative or intellectual outlets that allow us to challenge ourselves and grow in areas that bring us joy.
“Work outside of the home is visible in varying degrees and unlocks opportunities for praise and recognition, while domestic labor has often been described as invisible.”
Work outside of the home is visible in varying degrees and unlocks opportunities for praise and recognition, while domestic labor has often been described as invisible. The lack of feedback throughout long days can increase the burden that mothers feel. Social media and blogging allow the option for this work to be seen, but the choice to go public in those ways comes with its own complications—.e.g., privacy, judgmental comments, pressure to always showcase a perfect home. There are countless reasons that bringing visibility through digital platforms isn’t the right choice for everyone. It’s no wonder that many women feel their hard work is invisible but opt to keep it that way.
As someone who thrives on receiving recognition for my work, the private daily work of intentional parenting has been challenging. Still, there are days when it sounds appealing to simplify life and settle solely into a singular role at home, especially knowing that this choice would be praised by at least one segment of society. But, if I were to completely exit the paid labor market, would I be supporting an ideology that I disagree with? Would I inadvertently be acting as an obedient pawn of the patriarchy if I fully embraced the role of stay-at-home mom?
Then a realization strikes:
Clinging to my space in the workforce isn’t necessarily the progressive conscience-liberating solution it masquerades as. It doesn’t absolve me from participation in a suppressive system; it simply shifts my actions to participate in the parallel system of capitalism. Any labor outside of the economy (housework, caretaking, etc.) cannot be recognized as valuable in a system dependent on the fallacy of financial achievement being the ultimate goal. This creates a lose-lose situation for those seeking a path of theoretical progressive purity:
Stay at home, uphold the patriarchy.
Pursue a career, perpetuate capitalistic values.
Naming the inability to win at this tug-of-war game might be just what overthinking mothers like myself need. Once we accept the impossibility of escaping perceived participation in either system, we mentally free ourselves to design lives that make sense based on our unique individual situations, partnerships, and desires.
“We internally take a bit of power back into our own hands when we refuse to let a reaction to either patriarchal expectations or capitalistic principles prompt a lifestyle pendulum swing.”
Though others may not recognize the shift, we internally take a bit of power back into our own hands when we refuse to let a reaction to either patriarchal expectations or capitalistic principles prompt a lifestyle pendulum swing. After all, a reactionary decision will simply land us on the other side of the rope yet keep us firmly trapped in a game we can never win.
This reframing allows me to have more grace for both myself and others as we navigate the reality of our current world while aiming to create a future that shifts cultural values away from profit and hierarchical power. There are still complicated layers of familial or religious conditioning, background culture, and practical circumstances to evaluate as we each seek the balance between paychecks and parenting, but at least we can free ourselves mentally to make these decisions without the fear of being hypocritical, regardless of how it may appear to others.
We can be feminist stay-at-home mothers teaching our children that this is one of many honorable options that they can choose from when they’re older. We can be fearless working moms who actively remind our children that our worth is not restricted to economic contribution but that we can build lives we love doing work we care about.
“Whenever possible, I hope this generation of Cinderellas embraces the ability to choose.”
My mind wanders back to the Cinderella story. What a shame that another system of power (the king wanting a bride for his son) was her only escape from her stepmother’s grip. Whenever possible, I hope this generation of Cinderellas embraces the ability to choose if we want to be caretakers of the home on our own terms or dance in fields without ballroom walls closing in on us. No matter what we choose, we will feel the constant sting of external disapproval from multiple sources. We cannot escape the acute challenges of either lifestyle or the inner tension of our own hearts pulling us in multiple directions.
Whether sliding into the perfect glass slipper means focusing on managing our homes, shattering glass ceilings, or a combination of both, our feet will inevitably be scarred as we attempt to walk a path that simply cannot appease the multiple forces that wish to bind us to their priorities. Still we walk onward, scars and all, hoping that our daughters might have less painful shoes to choose from.
Ellie Hughes spent several years as a sustainable fashion blogger and leading the marketing for brands aiming to operate with ethics and the environment as their priority. She is now a freelance writer and marketing consultant living in Portland with her husband, two young daughters, and corgi.